What Is Actinic Cheilitis?

What Is Actinic Cheilitis?

Actinic cheilitis is a type of precancerous skin change that happens on the lips. It is usually related to damage from sun exposure or tanning beds. This condition can develop into a kind of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma if you do not have it treated.

Symptoms of Actinic Cheilitis

Actinic cheilitis is a skin condition and a form of actinic keratosis. It appears on your lips. All types of actinic keratosis have the same underlying cause. They occur when skin cells have been damaged due to prolonged exposure to UV light.

Actinic cheilitis may not be painful. There can be discomfort and it changes the appearance of the skin on your lips. Some signs of actinic cheilitis include:

  • Feeling like your lips are always chapped
  • Tightness of the skin of your lips
  • Rough texture on the skin of your lips
  • Cracked skin on your lips
  • A dry, flaky appearance of the skin on your lips
  • Color of your lips changes to look more like the skin around them

Some people experience changes to significant portions of their lips when they develop actinic cheilitis. Others only have a single spot of actinic cheilitis that looks different from the surrounding skin. The lower lip is more likely to be affected than the upper lip.

Causes of Actinic Cheilitis

Actinic keratosis is caused by damage from ultraviolet (UV) light. This is usually due to sun exposure. Using tanning beds or sunlamps can also damage your skin. Extensive damage from UV light can change the skin cells known as keratinocytes. Your skin cells then change texture and color over time due to the UV damage.

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Some people have a higher risk of developing actinic keratoses. Your risk may be higher if you have any of these factors:

  • Fair skin that sunburns easily
  • Albino skin
  • Naturally light-colored hair, such as red or blond
  • Light-colored eyes
  • Age (50 years or older)
  • Organ transplant recipient
  • Have certain immune system disorders
  • Not using sun protection

Actinic keratosis and actinic cheilitis can develop into a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma if left untreated. Squamous cell carcinoma is a treatable form of cancer with a low risk of death. It will cause damage to skin, nerves, and blood vessels if it isn’t treated.

A squamous cell carcinoma on your lips could be permanently disfiguring. Treatment can involve removing sections of skin to remove cancerous cells. Talking and swallowing may be more difficult if the cancer damages nerves around the mouth.


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